Aboriginal English

Smoke Signals

Have you ever seen the movie Smoke Signals? It’s about life in Native America and it was well received by many Native American and Canadian First Nations communities and other audiences. When we discuss this movie with friends from Aboriginal communities (Native American and Canadian First Nations), we find that people like to talk about the character “Thomas,” a young adult exploring his ethnic identity and his place in the world. One of Thomas’s most interesting traits is the way he speaks: distinctive intonation, rhythm, and pitch patterns. Many Aboriginal people perceive a sense of familiarity when they hear these features. Of course, Native American and Canadian First Nations communities are complex and multidimensional, with all kinds of different people and speaking styles. Thomas’ way of speaking is just one small way of expressing Native identity. Even so, when people watch a movie like Smoke Signals, or when they hear a powwow announcer or comedian using a certain humorous style with particular intonation patterns, people seem to recognize that speech style as distinctly Native or Aboriginal. Maybe they personally know people who speak that way or maybe they recall it as something they heard back home. Whether or not they speak that way themselves, we find that many Aboriginal people share an understanding of certain speaking styles that they identify as being somehow distinctively Aboriginal. Grouped together, these speaking styles are sometimes called a “Rez accent” or “Village English.”

We have been researching English features of Native American and First Nations communities across the US and Canada. It all began with a student project in a linguistics class at Dartmouth College in 2011. The results from the class project were so interesting that we developed it into a three-year grant proposal that was funded by the National Science Foundation. In this study, we have conducted recorded interviews with 75 Aboriginal people in three diverse locations: (1) Tulita, Northwest Territories, (2) Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and (3) Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Dartmouth has an unusually diverse set of Aboriginal students—more than any other Ivy League institution—so this gave us the opportunity to interview students from diverse tribes and locations around North America.

William Leap’s 1993 book outlines many of the common linguistic features found in Native American and Canadian First Nations English dialects. The features include intonation, individual words, slang, and grammatical forms such as double negatives and different kinds of tense marking and subject-verb patterns. In some cases, these features are different from what might be called “Standard English,” which is the type of English most commonly taught in the school system and heard in broadcast news. “Standard English” is typically viewed as prestigious, while other ways of speaking, such as the dialects of ethnic minority communities, are often viewed more negatively—both by outsiders as well as the community members themselves. This can be a serious problem for the educational system and for cross-cultural communication and understanding.

The truth is that all of these forms of speaking are legitimate, logical, and orderly linguistic systems. For example, linguists have studied African-American English in great detail and they have found that it has systematic, rule-governed, and orderly linguistic patterns. These patterns are just as logical as “Standard English.” Due to sociopolitical and historical reasons, the English features of ethnic minority communities are sometimes viewed negatively, but that’s a social reason, not a linguistic reason. For linguists who study the relationship between language and society (sociolinguists), this is known as the “Principle of Linguistic Subordination.” The idea is that if a particular social group is disadvantaged, prejudiced against, or viewed negatively because of historical, sociopolitical, or economic reasons, then the way that group speaks also comes to be viewed negatively. In other words, people’s social biases and prejudices come to be attached to linguistic features, creating linguistic biases and prejudices. If you look at those linguistic features objectively, there is no reason to say that any way of speaking is “better” or “worse” than another. It’s not wrong; it’s just different!

Suppose someone tends to use double negatives, such as, “They don’t know nothing.” That doesn’t sound like “Standard English,” right? But double negatives are perfectly fine in languages like Spanish, French, Italian, and Russian. Many major world languages have a pattern of double negation much like “non-standard” English dialects. It’s a different grammatical rule, a different way of expressing negation. No one would dare say that the Spanish, French, Italian, or Russian languages are somehow “wrong” or “defective.” Those languages simply have a different grammatical pattern than “Standard English.”

The idea is that if a particular social group is disadvantaged, prejudiced against, or viewed negatively because of historical, sociopolitical or economic reasons, then the way that group speaks also comes to be viewed negatively.

The same is true for various other linguistic features of the English in many ethnic minority communities, including Native American and Canadian First Nations communities. Any child who grows up speaking English in a minority community has acquired a logical and orderly linguistic system, regardless of whether larger society views it as “standard” or not.

Let’s go a step further: Not only are the “non-standard” forms just as good, they are actually often more logical, more orderly, and more systematic than the “standard” forms we learn in school. Here’s an example:

me > my car > my self = myself
you > your car > your self = yourself
her > her car > her self = herself
he > his car > his self = hisself?
they > their car > their selves = theirselves?

What do you think of the last two: hisself and theirselves? Those two sound somehow “wrong” and “non-standard,” right? Of course, we all know that himself and themselves are the standard English forms here. But notice that himself and themselves are actually the illogical and inconsistent ones here. Notice that it would be much more logical and orderly if everything on the right side consisted of a possessive pronoun + self, liked my+self=myself. From that perspective, hisself and theirselves are the most natural ways to talk: his+self = hisself, their+selves = theirselves. No wonder these forms show up in so many “non-standard” dialects, even though schools keep hanging onto the older, idiosyncratic forms himself and themselves. Once again, it’s not wrong; it’s just different.

Naturally, there are social consequences for using a “non-standard” form like hisself. If you used double negatives and words like hisself in a formal job interview for a prestigious company, they would probably view you as unintelligent. They would be wrong about that, of course, but you might not get the job. Still, though, it’s important to remember that it’s just a matter of arbitrary social attitudes, not anything objectively or linguistically wrong with different ways of speaking. You can imagine how important this idea could be when working with young children at school. If a teacher harshly corrected a child for saying hisself—making that child feel unintelligent or ignorant—it would be a serious disservice to the child and the community. The community may want teachers to help their children learn “Standard English” as a useful life skill. But at the same time, they would not appreciate teachers looking down on their own community’s distinctive speech styles or ethnic identity.

Aboriginal English


With this background in mind, let’s talk about our Aboriginal English research project in more detail. A number of scholars have considered similar questions in a variety of different tribes and communities across the continent. But our study is different for two reasons. First of all, our team includes researchers who are Aboriginals themselves. Kalina Newmark is a member of the Tulita First Nation of Northwest Territories, Canada, and Nacole Walker is a member of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North and South Dakota. The second way that our study is different is that we are focusing on pitch and intonation patterns, rather than individual words, slang, or grammatical features. Our study focuses on a set of ways of raising and lowering pitch and shifting intonation—subtle features that people recognize as distinctively Native or Aboriginal. We believe that these features are most likely to cross the large cultural and geographic distances of Native America.

William Leap and other prior researchers reported a “sing-song” speaking style in some Aboriginal communities. In our project, we wanted to find out what exactly this is. With our 75 recorded interviews representing a wide range of tribal communities across North America, we identified a set of distinctive features. First, we identified a pitch pattern where the stressed syllable has a lower pitch than the unstressed syllable. For example, with a word like Thomas pronounced in this speech style, the first syllable sounds lower than the second syllable. We also found that in this speech style, the end of the sentence is sometimes pronounced a little higher or a little lower than “Standard English”—and sometimes drawn out a little longer. Finally, we also heard rhythmic differences where syllables are pronounced in a more even-paced timing than in “Standard English.”

We found that these distinctively Aboriginal-sounding features mainly appeared in casual settings, as people felt the freedom to relax and joke with each other. In formal interviews, our interviewees typically just used “Standard English.” Casual settings brought out more of the “Rez accent.” For example, some Dartmouth Aboriginal students hosted a “frybread party” where they recorded students casually chatting with each other. This group included diverse regional backgrounds and tribal affiliations: Cherokee, Oto-Missouri, Iowa, Navajo, Tuscarora, Acoma Pueblo, Lakhota, Hochunk, Creek, and Potowatomi. Despite these differences, many of the students shared the speech features described here.

Aboriginal communities are living, vibrant, and worthy of study now, not simply as a part of distant history.

It is important to emphasize that we aren’t saying that all Aboriginal people talk alike—not at all. Aboriginal people represent vastly different regions, cultures, personal styles, and personal identity choices. English language features are just one way that an Aboriginal person could choose to express their ethnic identity, and some might choose not to express it at all. At the same time, we find that many Aboriginal people have a shared sense of familiarity with the speaking styles we have described here. When we think about the powwow circuit, for example, we observe that Aboriginal people from different tribes and locations often share a sense of “Indian Country” together at a powwow. Some scholars have called this a “Pan-Indian” identity. We believe that the speech features described here are part of that emergent ethnic identity. Of course, many Aboriginal people don’t use these speech features at all. Others may use them occasionally, while still others may use these features almost all the time like the character Thomas in Smoke Signals. But for many Aboriginal people, these features tap into a shared sense of ethnic identity. Future research will be needed to determine exactly how far it extends, and we suspect that the East Coast and other regions which had earlier European contact may have less exposure to these speaking styles.

Our study focused primarily on the present-day situation; Aboriginal communities are living, vibrant, and worthy of study now, not simply as a part of distant history. In fact, these Aboriginal English speech features may actually be increasing among young people, who tend to have less access to their heritage languages. Still, though, it’s valuable to consider where all of this may have started. Like other scholars, we suspect that the off-reservation boarding school system probably played a role. Beginning in the late 1800s, many Aboriginal children were put into off-reservation boarding schools. They were required to cut their hair to match European-American styles, and they were not allowed to speak their heritage languages. Many children suffered shaming and physical punishment when they spoke their Aboriginal languages, and the social scars of that terrible era can still be perceived today. Linguistically, the off-reservation boarding schools would be natural places for new English dialect features to emerge, as large numbers of Aboriginal children came together from different tribes and were forced to learn English.

The harshness of the boarding school system slowly dissipated over time, but intertribal interactions are on the rise for other reasons, including urbanization, migration, the powwow circuit, the Internet, and other venues where Aboriginal people come into close contact with one another. The history and development of features of Aboriginal English remain an open question, but these are likely some of the major contributing factors.

We believe that our study highlights the hope, strength, and resilience of Native American and Canadian First Nations communities. In the past, policymakers tried to take away the heritage languages of these communities, but no one could take away their ethnic identity. Now in the modern era, many Aboriginal communities across North America are creatively using distinctive English features, especially pitch, intonation, and rhythm patterns, to express a shared sense of ethnic identity. Thomas would be proud.

(This project was supported by the National Science Foundation BCS#1251324. Contact Kalina Newmark for more information kalina_newmark [at] cargill [dot] com)

Kalina Newmark is an enrolled member of the Tulita Dene First Nations in Tulita, Northwest Territories. She graduated from Dartmouth College in 2011 with a double major in Native American studies and anthropology modified with linguistics. After graduation, Newmark worked at Dartmouth for two years; first as presidential fellow in the President’s Office, and second as the coordinator of the Indian Health Service Partnership at the Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science. After, Newmark secured a position as a marketing communications specialist at Cargill in Minneapolis, MN. Outside of work, Newmark has a passion for her Dene culture, travel, wellness, and fashion.

James Stanford is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He studies dialects and sociolinguistics in underrepresented communities, including the Sui minority language of China and other less-commonly studied languages. With students at Dartmouth, he has also been conducting fieldwork on New England English dialects, using quantitative and acoustic phonetic analyses.

Nacole Walker is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She is the Lakohol’iyapi Wahohpi and Wichakini Owayawa Lakota Language Immersion School Director at Sitting Bull College. Nacole holds Lakota language trainings, as well as language and culture events for tribal youth. She facilitates the annual Lakota Summer Institute and teaches various intensive Lakota/Dakota language courses. Nacole earned her Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics from Dartmouth College in 2011, and is currently completing her Master of Education in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment.

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